I Had a Girlboss Action Movie Night and It Turned My Brain to Goo
[deeply resigned voice] Yas queen.
I don't know if you've noticed this, but we've had a marked increase in female-fronted action movies lately. You'd be forgiven for not noticing this, because most of them have been unceremoniously dumped on their respective streaming services with only the off chance you may catch sight of one of their banners gliding across your your television when it goes into screensaver mode. In July alone, we got assassin ensemble movie Gunpowder Milkshake and Jolt, starring Kate Beckinsale as a woman with anger superpowers, and this weekend Netflix is debuting Kate, about a female assassin on a mission to hunt down the gang who poisoned her. Because the ad banner trick worked on me, and because I famously love to be critical of this kind of thing, and also simply because I was curious, I decided to throw a girlboss action movie night and steep myself in the ichor of this ass-kicking, gun-toting, f-word-lobbing consequence of fourth-wave feminism.
I started with Kate, partially because the screener was going to expire and partially because this was originally supposed to be a review before I decided I actually had a much spicier take about lazy girlboss feminism to write. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays the titular character, a badass (you will see this word a lot) lady assassin living in Japan, which we know because the credits and location titles appear in kanji first before switching to English. Her handler, V (Woody Harrelson), coaches her around her assignments as she hunts down whichever members of the yakuza she's paid to kill that week, until a mysteriously botched assignment leaves her fearing for her life. As it turns out, she's been poisoned by a radioactive isotope, a cruel, slow execution that will take a whole day to complete, so she arms herself with an arsenal of epipens and sets off to find her would-be killer before she succumbs.
The movie itself is fine, if weirdly boring and mostly humorless, aside from Kate's obsession with Boom Boom Lemon, a particular soft drink. I did roll my eyes at a shot during one lengthy fight scene, in which Kate breaks the hold a thug has on her hair by slicing her hair off, resulting in an immediately cute chin-length 'do that she converts to a pixie later. It's got that self-conscious compulsion that a lot of these movies have, that in order to count as a Serious Action Film anything light must be cut to make up for its female protagonist, who must shed her lady baggage like she sheds her uterine lining every 28 or so days in ham-fisted visual metaphor before she can be Truly Badass. It also has the unfortunate plot element of a white main character constantly taking the lives of non-white background characters, a trope this genre in general is hard-pressed to be rid of.
Next was Gunpowder Milkshake, a movie I had been avoiding because its brand of hyperfeminine girl power sets my teeth on edge. As someone who suffers from the stiff jaw of a nighttime teeth-grinder, I felt it was maybe bad for my health to watch it, but these are the sacrifices I make for journalism. Gunpowder Milkshake builds a creative albeit sort of corny world whose assassin meeting venues are '50s-style diners and libraries who disguise weapons inside hollowed-out books, wherein Karen Gillan puts on her pitched-down Nebula voice and a shiny bomber jacket to solve her issues with her assassin mother (Lena Headey) and save the life of a young girl while running from an all-male gang of professional killers.
Its substantial budget is obvious in its lush sets and costumes, with plenty of slow-motion shots of bullets artfully whizzing past flowing hair, but all of this is undercut by the infantilizing girlbossiness of it all. Referring to weapons as "Jane Austens" and "Virginia Woolfs" is a good bit, but packing them in a duffel bag emblazoned with "I <3 KITTENS" is crossing a line. It did not get past me that the three librarians (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino) are dressed in Powerpuff Girls blue, green, and pink.
Last was Jolt, which is probably the dumbest of the bunch, but weirdly the most appealing to me personally. Maybe that's because it's actually good, or maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was already 11pm by the time I threw it on. In Jolt, Kate Beckinsale plays a woman with "serious anger management issues" whose fury erupts at inopportune times and gives her superhuman strength and combat abilities. Desperate to live a normal life, she wears a vest of electrodes she shocks herself with every time she feels a fit coming on (cool), and awkwardly stumbles her way through a couple of dates with Jai Courtney—before he is mysteriously murdered and she decides to harness her pent-up rage to hunt down the men responsible.
Aside from one line that made me open my window and stick my head out and shriek into the night—"What is it about gross old men always underestimating women??"—I had a surprisingly good time with Jolt, even though it committed yet another sin from the girlboss action movie playbook. Where Kate was too self-serious and Gunpowder Milkshake was cloying, Jolt has more jokes about the size, color, and consistency of male genitalia than the end credits sequence of Superbad. If you follow her on Instagram, you know that Beckinsale herself is no stranger to raunchy humor, but Jolt's script smacks of that misplaced mid-2000s yearning to "be one of the boys."
If there's one thing I learned from these movies, it's that these badass queens are out for revenge, kicking down their enemies in skinny jeans and chunky boots, hiding their weapons in women's literature, and chasing an expertly-devised assassination with a sugary drink of choice. The years have proved that action movies don't have to be led by men to be successful, and every studio wants their "Jane Wick" (gag), be it a Cold War mystery (Atomic Blonde, directed by John Wick co-director David Leitch), a Black Widow movie to fill the absence of an actual Black Widow movie (Jennifer Lawrence's Russian spy thriller Red Sparrow), or spy thriller originally written for a man (Salt, starring, eventually, Angelina Jolie).
I really like all of these actresses, and from what I've seen of the promotional material for these movies they seem like great fun to make, and who am I to stop the girls from bossing all over the back alleys of Tokyo or New York or Berlin. But, for a subgenre desperate to be subversive, it still feels paint-by-numbers: put a gal in a Cool Jacket, make her shoot some bad guys, and have her deliver a line to camera after every fight scene about how what you're watching is a progressive masterpiece. Female-led action movies will go nowhere until they stop trying to prove themselves to us as bastions of feminist empowerment, and just focus on telling a damn good story. Us gals like those, too.